The Red Sox defensive dilemma with Rafael Devers at third base.
Bud Abbott and Lou Costello had an endearing comedy routine called who’s on first? The Boston Red Sox may have to examine who’s on third in addition to who’s on second. Third base should be a question mark as the defensive advances Rafael Devers made in the second half of the 2019 season have reverted back to the Devers who played third like a matador or someone in the beginning stages of recovery from a massive hangover.
With a pitching staff that needs all the defensive acumen possible, the last thing a hurler wants is to see a ball hit to third, and either a juggling routine takes place or an errant throw sails into the stands, dugout, or on a really, really bad day the luxury boxes.
In 2020, Devers posted a -10.5 UZR/150 that’s as gruesome as is his -6 Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) in just 450 innings. Last season, the 2.4 UZR/150 and the -10 DRS took 1,353 innings to accomplish. This is a regression to 2018 ( -5.2 UZR/150 and -14 DRS). Devers has also led all AL third sackers three years in a row in errors.
The reason it is tolerated is simple – Devers is a hitting machine. It may take Machine Devers some time to warm up and get all cylinders running but when it happens, he’s as impressive with the bat as he is depressive with the glove. Traditional or metric, Devers’ hitting exploits are quite noteworthy and at 24-years-old the best is yet to come.
What do you do?
Chaim Bloom could easily solve a multitude of team issues by trading Devers. As Devers hits the stages of arbitration his price will go up – errors or no errors. The Red Sox could pick up pitching in quality for Devers and watch a potential franchise icon go the way of Mookie Betts.
Replacements of the internal variety are certainly available with Bobby Dalbec making the most of his small window of opportunity. Scouting information gives a thumbs-up as far as Dalbec as a defender compared to Devers. Dalbec has the power potential, but, alas, I doubt you will see a .300+ batting average.
The booming bat of Michael Chavis has lost its shine and Chavis’s exposure at third in the Bigs has been minimal – just 23 innings. Chavis apparently is viewed more as an outfielder or even as an expendable player. There are other options on the roster who have served duty at third base in their past and those options are too frightening to contemplate for a team wishing to extricate themselves from the basement.
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Devers can possibly be a designated hitter. However, he has a grand total of 23 at-bats as a DH and/or pinch hitter hitting just .215. Being a DH requires a unique mental as well as physical approach, but the roadblock is J.D. Martinez. The Red Sox could trade Martinez, but his value is meager based on 2020 results.
Devers could be positioned elsewhere on the diamond and that does not mitigate the defensive issue but will only magnify it. Somehow I cannot come to grips with the portly Devers sprinting in the outfield attempting to imitate Jackie Bradley Jr.or Alex Verdugo.
Just how do you keep Devers planted at third with minimal damage? What happened in the second half of 2019 that made his defense palatable? Was it Alex Cora who had also played Dr. Phil of baseball to get Devers propensity for swinging at pitches outside the zone under control? I know it is not a work ethic issue as Devers is by all accounts a consummate professional who takes his job seriously. The fielding issue remains for me a mystery.
This seems to boil down to a situation where the team will have to accept collateral damage for at least another season. Maybe Martinez will discover he can hit without a tablet reviewing every swing and the Red Sox can get a nice package for shipping the slugger elsewhere slotting Devers into DH?
Bloom may have another GM gives him a call and offer – to paraphrase Don Vito Corleone “Make an offer he can’t refuse.” Will Devers defensive light go on and return to previous points of success? We’ve seen the good and bad Devers with the glove and the Red Sox certainly need more of the good – especially the pitchers.